Undesirable Ties by Elisabeth Khan

‘Visceral Encounters’ by Moeen Faruqi, 2011 | Acrylic on canvas | 36×48 inches | Private collection

This morning I found myself—briefly—in the company of my first love, Gur Dayal Singh, who had unceremoniously dumped me forty years ago. G.D., as he liked to be called, was wearing a slate-color suit made of some shiny material fit for an Italian mobster. He wore no turban but still had his long hair up in a topknot. His beard was carefully trimmed.

The room looked as if it had once been a storefront, with sunlight streaming in through a large window, partially screened from the street by high-tech white shades—like a dentist’s waiting room. A low-slung leather sectional ran along three walls; a steel-and-glass coffee table sat in the middle. It was impossible to tell what country we were in.

Both of us had aged, though not much; his hair was still black and there was some grey in his beard now. There was a young woman in the room with us…his current girlfriend, I presumed. I did not wonder about G.D.’s wife until after I woke up. All I could think of was getting this “new” girl to leave, so that he and I could have some privacy.

***

The dream is fading as I write down these details. I vaguely recollect a moment of intimacy, of getting through to him, but not what we talked about. One thing is sure: we did not discuss that long-distance phone call in the middle of the night when he, sounding beery, told me that it was all over between us, leaving me flabbergasted, disbelieving…demanding to know why.

Eventually, I had found out why, and eventually I had made my peace with it, though not without a mighty struggle.

***

The last time I saw Gur Dayal was in 1975, about a year and a half after it all ended. I was a year away from graduating and had already met my future husband, Dariush, by then. G.D. had, some months earlier, married Mohinder Kaur, a girl his mother had selected. I know I ought to feel shame about what I did, dropping in on them unannounced, but I’d felt I had no choice. I needed to hear from his own lips what I had recently learned: that his family had forced him to break off our engagement, that his mother had threatened to cut him off and disinherit him, his mother who had called me beta, “child.” I never stopped to think what my sudden reappearance would do to G.D., his guilty mother, or his innocent bride. The desire to wrest some kind of retribution from these people who had collectively broken my heart made me ruthless.

***

During the 1984 massacre in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Singhs had been on my mind. However, married by now and living half a world away, I’d made no attempt to find out their fate. I’d decided to cut all ties after that surprise visit, nine years earlier. In my diary, I had even scratched out the address G.D. had moved to after his marriage, partly out of disgust, partly out of a sense of fairness to both Dariush and Mohinder.

The TV news brought the atrocities right into our living room. In the Indian capital, Hindu mobs turned onto their Sikh neighbors in revenge for the murder of the Prime Minister by her own Sikh bodyguard, killing young and old in the most gruesome ways. Fortunately the family no longer lived in Delhi, I thought. I chose to believe they were safe in their new home. My brother Dave, ever thoughtful, called me up to say how happy he was I had not married “the Sikh” and followed him to India; how lucky I was to be safe and sound in L.A. “with your gloomy Persian,” and only the occasional earthquake to worry about.

As little as I recall about my dreamtime conversation with my ex, I remember feeling strangely lighthearted on waking up, as if I had gotten something off my chest. Not that I had any recollection of what was said, but after my first cup of coffee, I came up with a theory. Perhaps I had wanted to tell G.D. what happened to my daughter, Minoo. In her, you see, our history had repeated itself.

***

Dariush Ebrahimi had come to the US as a graduate student. A mutual friend told me the Iranian was looking for someone to proofread his master’s thesis.

“Don’t let his simple lifestyle fool you,” she said, “His folks send him hand-knotted rugs from Iran, and he sells them. He’ll pay you good money for a job well done.”

Knowing nothing about his field—semiconductors—I expressed some doubts, but my friend convinced me that, as an English major, I was at least capable of spotting typos and fixing awkward constructions, and I agreed to have a look at the text.

The better part of Ebrahimi’s studio was taken over by the Kermans and Bokharas his family had sent him through various unofficial channels; the smaller rugs stacked in a heap, some larger ones rolled up and leaning against the walls.

I can’t say it was love at first sight, but it did not take me very long to start liking Dariush Ebrahimi, with his heavy eyebrows, his soft voice and courtly manners—so very different from the exuberant, gregarious G.D.

Once, when I was crying my eyes out over G.D., my mother had said: “It’s better to marry the man who loves you than the man you love.”

What nonsense, I thought. After a while, though, Dariush became that man who loved me and wanted to marry me. I could see us as a family. But first I needed to settle this unfinished business with G.D.

***

G.D.’s widowed mother spoke no English and I did not speak Punjabi. She looked older than I had expected, a formidable presence with penetrating eyes. Yet she seemed to dote on me that first time I traveled to India, when G.D. introduced me to her as his future wife. I bent down and touched her feet as G.D. had asked me. From the beginning he had stressed how important Mummyji was to him, that he wanted us to live with her and expected me to look after her. “You know, make sure she takes her medicines and things like that…” he’d said.

She called me daughter, consulted an astrologer for an auspicious date, and presided over our engagement in the prayer room of their house. Afterwards there had been a modest party with close relatives. I remember tripping over my long, gathered skirt (emerald green, as instructed by the astrologer) when G.D.’s beautiful cousin tried to teach me a Punjabi dance move. My engagement ring had four emeralds in a setting that was slightly irregular, as if it had been made in haste.

Before I returned home to finish my education, my prospective mother-in-law presented me with an heirloom: an antique silver pendant with nine different gemstones, each standing for a planet. G.D. explained it was a talisman, to protect me from bad luck.

How could I believe, then, what an acquaintance visiting from Delhi had said, that it was Mummyji who had forced her son into an arranged marriage? I had to get to the bottom of this. My visa was still valid. No sooner had this person disclosed the Singh family’s whereabouts than I had emptied my savings account to buy another plane ticket to India.

Good idea or bad, here I was. The servant who opened the door had come from Delhi with the Singhs. Recognizing me, he led me straight to the drawing room and gestured for me to sit down. There was a glint in his eye as if he expected something interesting to happen. I heard him announce to someone in the next room, “Memsaab has come.”

If the Singhs were shocked to see me, they did not show it. They treated me like an honored guest. Mummyji embraced me and said something I didn’t understand.

“She hopes you are well,” G.D. translated.

After dinner, G.D. invited me up to the roof terrace, to show me the view. Unasked, he launched into an elaborate explanation of how Mummyji had emotionally blackmailed him, how he had been unable to envision life without his extended family; all those uncles, aunts, and cousins who had only pretended to like me.

“But why? What does she have against me?” I said.

“She has nothing against you. She decided you weren’t cut from the right cloth to be my wife and her daughter-in-law. You’re not Sikh, and you’re not Punjabi.”

“I was ready to convert, to learn the language; we had talked it over, remember?”

“A language is one thing, but it would have taken you years to absorb our customs, our etiquette, how to honor the elders, cook our food, …all the things Punjabi girls learn at home in preparation for married life.”

“Then why that travesty of an engagement? And why did you not tell me how she really felt?”

“Believe me, I didn’t know. I thought she had accepted you, the way your family had accepted me. Even that goofy brother of yours.”

“Still, you could have told me when you found out. You should have!”

G.D. hung his head. He said nothing for a while. At last he spoke: “I didn’t know how to tell you, where to start. I was in shock, too. Don’t think it was easy for me…it still isn’t.”

“It was cowardly,” I said.

“Perhaps…”

“Not perhaps, definitely.

“Hear me out. Perhaps you can stay here. I could rent an apartment for you and we’d be together again.”

“Stay here? As your mistress, you mean? Are you out of your mind? What about my parents, my studies? What about your wife?”

For the longest time I thought of that instant as the moment my sadness turned into searing anger, burning to ashes the last bit of feeling I had for this man. But in the dream I still felt so much love for him, almost as much as at the height of our relationship, when I believed he was my other half in this life and all the lives before and after.

***

When our daughter Minoo came home from her East Coast college for Thanksgiving she mentioned a friend called Dilip – casually, but one time too many.  I couldn’t resist teasing her, “His last name isn’t Singh, is it?” The shade of pink she turned told me all I needed to know.

“How… how did you guess?”

“Easy. It’s a common Sikh name. I had a Sikh boyfriend when I was your age.”

Minoo looked relieved that I wasn’t clairvoyant after all. Then she wanted to know more.

“I was young. It didn’t work out.”

I didn’t go into detail. Of course I was worried for her, but I thought, as my parents had probably thought in their day, that it was still early in the game, and that expressing misgivings often has the effect of hardening young people in their stance. I also thought that, should things ever turn serious, my daughter and Dilip stood a better chance of making it, especially after she told me that his parents were professionals who had immigrated many years ago, and that he was a “clean-shaven Sikh” who wore his hair short. She also mentioned that Dilip had dated other American girls before, which I found reassuring.

Over the following semester, things became serious enough that Dariush had to be let in on our little secret. His parents were nominally Shi’a. Well educated and westernized, they had thrived under the Shah. After the Islamic revolution, they had joined us in California. Dariush and I are not religious. He calls himself a cultural Muslim and never had a problem with his daughter dating, or even marrying, outside his culture.

About that time G.D., Mummyji, and Mohinder once again surfaced in my thoughts. Poor Mohinder who had married a man with a past she had not known about. A past that had subsequently turned up on her doorstep. I had sensed the tension between them and assumed I was the cause of it. But, that time on the roof, G.D. told me they’d had trouble getting along from the start. Mohinder, he said, was very devout, and had been shocked to discover—on their honeymoon—that G.D. smoked in secret and drank openly. Mummyji had been the winner, getting the daughter-in-law of her dreams. Wouldn’t it be ironic if my daughter succeeded where I had failed?

***

After the conversation on the roof, I was done with Gur Dayal Singh. We went back down and behaved admirably, all of us. Mohinder, who spoke excellent English, joined us in the drawing room and we made polite conversation. I told them I was about to get engaged to my Iranian boyfriend and we planned to get married as soon as I graduated college. G.D. acted shocked.

“Don’t marry a Muslim,” he said, “You’ll ruin your life.”

***

Thanks to Dariush and his open-minded family, I gradually healed from the trauma of rejection. After receiving his master’s degree, Dariush joined a startup that blossomed in the emerging silicon era and soon was able to sponsor his parents and siblings. They stayed with us for a short time and then made their own way in the flourishing Iranian expat community. We had a son, Cyrus, and ten years later, when we least expected it, we had our lovely daughter, Minoo.

In many ways, my daughter and I are polar opposites. Where I was an average looking, somewhat awkward and insecure Midwestern blond, she is a hybrid beauty who feels at home in the world, poised and full of confidence, cool headed yet sweet tempered. If I was a tulip at her age, she is an orchid. Any man should be so lucky to have her for a girlfriend, or for a wife.

Minoo told us she wanted to stay out East after graduation because there was a chance of her getting a paid internship and, of course, because Dilip was in medical school there. She didn’t share a whole lot about their relationship. I was content to see the Facebook posts of them looking happy in pubs and parks. Dariush and I had hoped to meet her boyfriend when we went to attend her graduation, but he was nowhere to be seen that day. Something came up, Minoo said when I asked about him. Later that week Minoo told us on the phone that she had received a card and a graduation present in the mail from his parents. Another good sign, I thought.

Minoo came home for the Fourth of July so she could hang out with her best friends from high school on the long weekend. She seemed uncharacteristically moody and spent a lot of time on the phone and even more time in bed. She deflected my questions until one day I found her in tears. “Mom…,” she moaned, reaching for me, and I felt my heart sinking.

“They told him to stop seeing me,” she sobbed, “because… our relationship has no future.”

“Oh sweetheart, I’m so sorry,” I said. Gathering my baby’s miserable little form in my arms, I searched for the right words to console her.

“I wish I had told you more about what happened with me, but I didn’t want to scare you. I believed that things had changed over the last forty years, that Dilip’s parents would let him choose his own wife.”

“Mom, they were OK with the American girl he dated before me. But he said his mom said her parents in India would never accept him marrying a Muslim.”

So that’s what it was. Never mind that Minoo never set foot in a mosque, that she’d had to learn the basics of “her” faith in a college class, that she was just an all-around decent human being who approached other people and their faiths without prejudice. She just had the wrong last name. I was taken aback.

Hugging her tight, I raged inwardly against the ignorance of people who could dismiss a fine young woman without knowing her; who were more concerned about what their relatives in India would say than about their son’s happiness. I raged against the man who did not stand up for my daughter. He was no better than them, no better than G.D. had been. The real irony was that, in almost half a century, nothing had changed.

***

Maybe that was what I had told Gur Dayal in that sun-flooded room. And possibly just the act of doing so, albeit in a dream, had brought me peace. I did not need a response from him. After his cynical proposition on the roof terrace, I would not have expected him to say something wise and compassionate.

Mummyji had won once again, but unlike me, Minoo will not be troubled by a thousand questions. My mother had been unable to ease my pain after the breakup. She’d been so concerned for my father’s reaction (“He might have a heart attack!”) that she beseeched me to keep the truth from him. Oblivious of my listlessness, my pallor and weight loss, he had remained blissfully unaware of my agony. This will not happen to my daughter; she will have the benefit of my experience. With my support and her father’s love, her heartbreak will, I dare hope, transform itself into wisdom, into forgiveness over time. For love to conquer all, prejudice has to be conquered first.

I still have no idea who that other girl was, the one whose presence had annoyed me in that strange, impersonal room where I found Gur Dayal in my dream. I don’t think it matters.

 

 

Belgian by birth, Elisabeth Khan has lived in the USA for the last 25 years and currently divides her time between Michigan, Abu Dhabi, and India. She writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry and has a blog: elisabethkhan.wordpress.com.

 

 

Moeen Faruqi is an artist and English language poet living in Karachi. His paintings have been exhibited widely within Pakistan and internationally in Canada, Italy, Singapore, Bangladesh, UK and India. Canvas Gallery had his most recent solo exhibition. His poems have been published in various literary journals in Pakistan and abroad.

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